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Bourrie brings New France explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson’s story to life in Bush Runner

By Kate Malloy      

Mark Bourrie talks about his book, Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson.

Author Mark Bourrie, a former Hill journalist, said he looked up Pierre-Esprit Radisson about 15 years go and couldn't believe his story. 'Radisson had an amazing life, and it stayed interesting all the way through. And he lived that life in a world that vaguely resembles ours, yet is alien.' Photographs courtesy of RBC Taylor Prize
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Mark Bourrie has written 14 books, but his most recent book, Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, a groundbreaking biography of the adventurous New France fur trader, explorer, and co-founder of the Hudson’s Bay Company, is attracting attention in Canada and the U.S.

It’s been nominated for this year’s prestigious $30,000 RBC Charles Taylor Award, it’s been on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller lists, and it could be made into a movie.

France-born Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636-1710) arrived in New France when he was 15, was kidnapped by Mohawk warriors and adopted and assimilated. He was later captured and tortured by Iroquois, escaped, took part in a Jesuit mission to Onondagay, and became a coureur-des-bois who co-founded the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 with his brother in law Médard des Groseilliers.

“About 15 years ago, I looked Radisson up for some reason. I can’t remember why. I couldn’t believe his life story. For example, I didn’t know he was in one of the greatest naval disasters in French history, or that he was in London for the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. I thought I could tell a story around that. None of the publishers I knew at the time thought anyone would buy it, so I just stashed all the work I had done on Radisson and, basically, forgot about it,” said Mr. Bourrie.

But one of his editors had kept his pitch and had ended up with a publisher, Biblioasis, who liked it.

The 62-year-old Toronto-born former Parliament Hill journalist who lived most of his life near southern Georgian Bay before moving to Ottawa in 1994, has freelanced for The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, The Law Times, Toronto Life, Canadian Business, Ottawa magazine, and The Hill Times. He was a busy freelancer until 2004, when he started his PhD studies at the University of Ottawa, but writing books is his passion. He’s had book deals since 1993.

The Globe and Mail calls Bush Runner “compelling, authoritative, not a little disturbing—and a significant contribution to the history of 17th-century North America.”

“I see books as a permanent thing, a way of conversing with my descendants after I’m gone,” said Mr. Bourrie who is no longer a member the Parliamentary Press Gallery and is now a practising lawyer.

What’s your book about?

“On the face of it, the book is about Pierre Radisson, who was a real scoundrel. It’s really about the two worlds that collided in what’s now Canada and the northern United States in the early 1600s: the worlds of the Indigenous people of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence valleys and the world of the French, Dutch, and English. You may think you know these worlds, but you probably don’t.”

What inspired you to write it?

“About 15 years ago, I looked Radisson up for some reason. I can’t remember why. I couldn’t believe his life story. For example, I didn’t know he was in one of the greatest naval disasters in French history, or that he was in London for the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. I thought I could tell a story around that. None of the publishers I knew at the time thought anyone would buy it, so I just stashed all the work I had done on Radisson and, basically, forgot about it.”

Why did you write this book?

“The answer: I was asked to. One of my editors had kept the pitch all those years and had ended up with a publisher who liked the idea and would take a chance. Why I took the deal when I was already overwhelmed with work, writing bar exams and jumping through the hoops to get my law licence: I had written an academic paper on Iroquoian property law. I knew I could use that as part of an argument to rebuff Tom Flanagan (First Nations, Second Thoughts) and Conrad Black (Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present) who argued First Nations simply did not exist as nations. There’s an awful lot more to Bush Runner, but that part is my public service.”

How long did it take you to write it?

“I had spent about six months on it, off and on, in the early 2000s. It took less than a year to pull the rest together. I spent four months working full-time on it in the summer of 2017, and worked on it part-time for about another year.”

How long did it take you to research it?

“I didn’t clock the hours, but I was lucky because Radisson left a lot of written material behind, and it was in English or had been translated. Several scholars tackled Radisson about a hundred years ago. I had already read every book I could find on the Huron (Wendats) and other corn-growing nations in the Great Lakes country. I was also a freak for English civil war stories. That all came together. I got help from the strangest places, including Charles, Earl Spencer, brother of Princess Diana. He’d written a book on Prince Rupert, who was Radisson’s patron. Turned out Winston Churchill had also written a bit about Radisson, but he got it wrong.”

What did Churchill get wrong?

“Churchill, in his biography of his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough—who was, for a while, head of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Radisson’s boss/patron, said Radisson defected to the English because he was a Protestant. That was false. It was just about the money, finding a backer for a Hudson Bay trade to come in the back door of Canada and do an end run around the Indigenous people who owned the Great Lakes trade routes.”

What was the research process?

“Mostly reading Radisson’s own writings and a lot of academic papers about Radisson, ‘exploration,’ First Nations’ life, and histories of France, England, and Holland at that time. Strangely, the hardest part was researching the French marine disaster of Los Aves, off the coast of Venezuela. A very well-connected French admiral sailed an entire navy and pirate fleet, at full sail, into an area of reefs and islands. The disaster was covered up then, and it’s still covered up. And, even more strange, there isn’t a decent, serious history of Caribbean pirates of that period. The books that are out there are crap. I keep that in mind on cold days.”

Why is this book important?

“It uses the life story of one oddball man to tell about the very foundation of Canada. It explains how an extremely dysfunctional Europe, devastated by war and revolution, collided with a North American continent full of people who were very human: who wanted metal pots, rather than clay pots, to cook with; and who wanted to arm themselves to protect their people from changes that were impossible to stop. You’ll see two worlds that make today’s seem quite placid.”

Who should read it?

“Everyone. Seriously, it’s a great story. Radisson had an amazing life, and it stayed interesting all the way through. And he lived that life in a world that vaguely resembles ours, yet is alien.”

Your book was on bestseller lists in Canada, but didn’t receive a ton of coverage. Why do you think that is?

“No Canadian non-fiction books get much publicity in mainstream private-sector media anymore. I was lucky. Bush Runner received a great review in The Globe and Mail. It’s also got positive reviews in The Washington Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The Toronto Star also printed a very large excerpt. It was the subject of a one-hour special on the radio show CBC Ideas. Every time that interview was broadcast through the summer, the book shot up bestseller lists. At one point, Bush Runner was Amazon Canada’s fourth best-selling book. It’s had at least five printings, been nominated for the $30,000 RBC Charles Taylor Award (no media outside The Toronto Star and the CBC ran the list of nominees), and we’re working on selling foreign rights and on a movie pitch. The only coverage it didn’t get was from Canadian print media, outside of the ones I mentioned. Frankly, they don’t matter. In Canada, the only thing that sells books in any serious way is coverage by the CBC and, later, word of mouth. But it can be frustrating. If the CBC stopped covering Canadian non-fiction, our country’s story would be almost completely ignored. I would call that a cultural crisis.”

What inspires you to do what you do?

“My wife. I know that’s corny, but we have a very symbiotic relationship. I have given her support since we first met, and she was an undergrad student. She has always supported me and never pressured me to throw in the towel. I have had my share of depression and anxiety, and she was there to get me through that. She is the rock that everything in my life is built on.”

Why did you decide to leave the media and become a lawyer?

“I thought, and still think, the courts are the last line of defence of democracy. I no longer believe that about the media. I have been able to protect the rights of people in a lot of trouble, from small newspapers, to politicians, to whistleblowers. I have also been able to help victims of elder abuse, and done pro-bono legal work for the poor. I’ve also kept writing, but very little of that work could be called journalism.”

You’ve written a lot of books. What’s next?

“At least one more Canadian biography, and, quite likely, another one on an American that has no connection to Canada whatsoever. I have a contract for the Canadian biography. I am also writing a guidebook of basic law for journalists that’s supposed to come out in 2021.”

How would you describe your writing?

“I’ve stopped writing for money. My Radisson book, and the next two biographies, are really parables. Radisson is about fitting into rapidly-changing worlds, breaking boundaries, accepting what life gives you and refusing to be sidelined by other people’s prejudices. If Radisson had given into the morals and attitudes of his time, he wouldn’t have made it past page 50. The book after that—which I hope comes out next year—is about someone trying to leverage their celebrity to become leader of a fascist Canada. And how he almost pulled it off. And that one after that will be the story of an Incel driven by his own craziness to do an outrageous act, and then being rewarded with the fame he so badly craved. And then there’s the law-for-journalists text, which is sort of a thank you payback to two professions that gave me a lot of enjoyment and freedom.”

Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, by Mark Bourrie, Bibilioasis, 391 pp., $22.95.

The Hill Times 

Kate Malloy

Kate Malloy is the editor-in-chief of The Hill Times.
- kmalloy@hilltimes.com

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